GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AP) – Offering a glimpse into the top-secret world of Guantanamo Bay, the Pentagon has released the names and home countries of many detainees who have been held at the isolated military prison for up to four years.
A Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by The Associated Press forced the Department of Defense on Friday afternoon to turn over some 5,000 pages of transcripts from closed-door hearings on the detainees, most of whom were accused of having links to the Taliban or al-Qaeda.
While the Pentagon has not provided the full roster of detainees, the transcripts give the most detailed picture to date of who has been held at the prison on a U.S. base in eastern Cuba, which has become the focus of international criticism in part because of the government’s shroud of secrecy.
Jamie Fellner, director of the U.S. program for Human Rights Watch, said the disclosure represents a “major breach” in that secrecy.
“It will add to our understanding of who is there and what are the reasons that the U.S. alleges they are there for,” Fellner said.
The Pentagon released the documents after a federal judge rejected arguments by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush that releasing names, home countries and other information would violate the detainees’ privacy and could endanger them and their families.
The names are scattered throughout the transcripts of hearings, and it was unclear how many names the documents contained. In most of the transcripts, the person speaking is identified only as “detainee.”
Names appear only when court officials or detainees refer to people by name. In some cases, even having the name did not clarify the identity. In one document, the tribunal president asks a detainee if his name is Jumma Jan. The detainee responds that no, his name instead is Zain Ul Abedin.
The men were mostly captured during the 2001 U.S.-led war that drove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan and sent Osama bin Laden deeper into hiding, and the newly released documents shed light on some of
the detainees’ explanations.
In one unedited transcript, Zahir Shah, an Afghan accused of belonging to an Islamic militant group and of having a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and other weapons in his house, admits having rifles. He says they were for protection, he had a running feud with a cousin, and insists he did not fight U.S. troops.
The only time he shot anything, he says, was when he hunted with a BB gun. “What are we going to do with RPGs?” he asks, adding: “The only thing I did in Afghanistan was farming. … We grew wheat, corn, vegetables and watermelons.” In another document, a detainee identified as Abdul Hakim Bukhary denies he is member of al-Qaeda but acknowledges he traveled from his native Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan to fight U.S. forces, and says he met Osama bin Laden about 15 years ago while fighting Russian forces in Afghanistan. He praises his captors for running a good prison. “Prisoners here are in paradise,” he says. “American people are very good. Really. They give us three meals. Fruit juice and everything!” Still, he says, he wants to return to his family.
It was not clear whether Shah and Bukhary are still being held. The documents do not name all current and former Guantanamo Bay detainees. And even when detainees are named, the documents do not make clear whether they have since been released.
The documents do contain the names of some known former prisoners, like Moazzam Begg and Feroz Ali Abbasi, both British citizens. A handwritten note shows Abbasi pleading for prisoner-of-war status.
Most of the Guantanamo Bay hearings were held to determine whether the detainees were “enemy combatants.” That classification, Bush administration lawyers say, deprives the detainees of Geneva Convention prisoner-of-war protections and allows them to be held indefinitely without charges.
Documents released last year, also because of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the AP, included transcripts of 317 hearings, but had the detainees’ names and nationalities blacked out. The current documents are the same ones, this time, uncensored.
A U.S. military spokesman in Guantanamo Bay said the Pentagon was uneasy about handing over the transcripts.
“Personal information on detainees was withheld solely to protect detainee privacy and for their own security,” said Lt. Cmdr. Chito Peppler. He said the Defense Department remains concerned that the disclosure “could result in retribution or harm to the detainees or their families.”
Buz Eisenberg, a lawyer for a detainee, said he hopes the uncensored documents can help clear his client. “We have been trying to litigate a case without ever knowing what the allegations were that the government claimed justified his continued detention,” Eisenberg
said. “Thanks to the AP’s successful lawsuit, we’re looking forward to receiving that evidence so that we can properly prepare our client’s substantive case in court.”
Eisenberg did not want to name his client because he had not asked the man for permission.
U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff of New York ruled in favor of the AP last week, a major development in a protracted legal battle. In the ongoing litigation, the AP has also asked the Pentagon to release a complete list of all detainees ever held at the prison on a U.S. Navy base in eastern Cuba.
“This is extremely important information,” said Curt Goering, senior deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA. “We’ve been asking ever since the camp opened for a list of everyone there as one of the most basic first steps for any detaining authority.”
Human rights monitors say keeping identities of prisoners secret can lead to abuses and deprive their families of information about their fate. About 490 prisoners are being held at Guantanamo Bay, but only 10 of them have been charged with a crime. Some of the testimony seemed bound to embarrass the military.
Abbasi complains that on two occasions, military police officers had sex in front of him, while others tried to feed him “a hot plate of pork,” food banned by the Islamic faith. Some, he said, misled him into praying north toward the United States rather than toward Mecca as Muslims are required to do.
Like the other detainees, Abbasi wasn’t allowed to see classified evidence against him. He repeatedly cited international law in arguing that he was unfairly classified as an enemy combatant. An Air Force colonel whose identity remains blacked out would have none of it.
“Mr. Abbasi, your conduct is unacceptable and this is your absolute final warning. I do not care about international law. I do not want to hear the words international law again. We are not concerned about nternational law,” the colonel says. Then he has Abbasi removed from the courtroom.
Last year, Rakoff ordered the government to ask each detainee whether he or she wanted personal identifying information to be turned over to the AP as part of the lawsuit. Of 317 detainees who received the form, 63 said yes, 17 said no, 35 returned the form without answering and 202 declined to return the form.
The judge said none of the detainees, not even the 17 who said they did not want their identities exposed, had a reasonable expectation of privacy during the tribunals. A Pentagon lawyer delivered the documents, 60 files on a CD-ROM, about 20 minutes after the deadline at the close of business Friday. But within minutes, an officer returned and took back the CD-ROM, which contained letters from relatives of some of the prisoners that were not intended for release. A new version was provided over an hour later.